Successful Cities Dispense With 'Free' Parking

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 06, 2007

One of the more popular articles on Raise the Hammer was the April, 2005 review of Donald Shoup's book The High Cost of Free Parking, which makes the controversial argument that there is too much parking, and that the false economy it produces is very harmful.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal takes another look at Shoup's approach.

Since the parking meter was first introduced 70 years ago, in Oklahoma City, the field has been dominated by two simple maxims: Cities can never have too much parking, and it can never be cheap enough.

Shoup, of course, rejects these maxims categorically, arguing instead that trying to meet the demand for "free" parking is as futile as a restaurant trying to meet the demand for a "free" buffet lunch.

Fortunately, some cities are starting to come around:

Seattle is doing away with free street parking in a neighborhood just north of downtown. London has meters that go as high as $10 an hour, while San Francisco has been trying out a system that monitors usage in real time, allowing the city to price spots to match demand. (A recent tally there showed that one meter near AT&T Park brings in around $4,500 a year, while another meter about a mile away takes in less than $10.) Gainesville, Fla., has capped the number of parking spots that can be added to new buildings; Cambridge, Mass., works with companies to reduce off-street parking.

Of course, not everyone is convinced. Many city planners and, ironically, business gruops, are still convinced that downtowns struggle to compete with suburban malls because they don't have enough free parking.

I write "ironically" because business owners, of all people, should be open to the role that market forces play in regulating the supply and demand of goods and services.

Shoup recommends variable pricing for parking, set to slide up and down based on what price will lead to 85 percent occupancy. This increases "churn" and reduces spot-hoarding, as well as increasing transit ridership - which lets transit providers improve service - and, incidentally, ensuring that people who choose to drive and pay can usually find a spot withoug having to cruise around and around a block.

There's plenty more in the article, including evidence from a number of successful cities that reducing parking, while counterintuitive, actually works much better than demolishing real destinations to make room for more "free" parking.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By donald shoup (anonymous) | Posted February 06, 2007 at 19:03:30

i love parking!

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By Sharchy (anonymous) | Posted February 06, 2007 at 20:13:08

His ideas are very common sense a thriving city center is congested with people and with commerce - not free parking. But you can't just go from dilapidated downtown to hustle and bustle over night. Here is a potential strategy: tax the heck out of surface parking lots. Force land speculators to either raise parking prices, develop, or sell (meanwhile keep municipal street parking cheap). Use the tax revenue to fund rapid transit. Then hike the rates of street parking once urban infill takes over. Hamilton is not in a position to do away with free parking yet. But hopefully in 5-8 years or so it will. Its time to kill the car centric mentality. A downtown is a place for living not a place for driving. You don’t see people driving 80km an hour down suburban ‘cul de sac’s so why does this happen on downtown Hamilton’s city streets?

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By aaron (registered) | Posted February 07, 2007 at 09:07:05

Charging more for on street parking wouldn't help Hamilton at all. Free street parking would be better, people hate fumbling around for change just to park. Parking tickets are way too common in Hamilton too. People really don't want to shop downtown if they have to pay for parking, constantly look at their watch, rush back to their car, and then find they've gotten a ticket for being 5 minutes over the time. Surface parking lots, on the other hand, tax them to death!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 07, 2007 at 09:54:40

Aaron, you're still thinking in suburban terms. Downtown Hamilton cannot thrive by competing with the suburbs on their terms. It doesn't have enough room for suburban development.

The fatal problem with "free" parking downtown is that there's no way to provide enough "free" parking in a dense urban environment to meet demand without destroying the urban environment. There will always be more people trying to find spots than there are spots, and the result is more cars 'cruising' around and around blocks hoping for a spot to open up and inexorable demand for more and more parking spots.

The whole point of a downtown is that destinations are very close together - even piled on top of each other - and it has to be safe and comfortable to walk around. In that environment, a car is actually a detriment to getting around because the built infrastructure does not cater to drivers. When it does try to cater to cars, as it does in Hamilton, we end up with dangerous urban expressways that scare away pedestrians and destroy businesses.

The suburban development model is that destinations have to be separated from each other and it has to be easy to drive everywhere. That means wide, multiple lanes and lots free parking everywhere.

That model can work in a place with abundant cheap land - assuming automobile fuel also stays cheap and abundant, which it almost certainly will not - but it cannot possibly work in a place where the surface area is fixed (as in a downtown) and subject to many competing demands for use.

Hamilton's downtown will never thrive until it admits to being a downtown - with the advantages and disadvantages a downtown inherently brings - and focuses on leveraging the advantages. Those advantages are: density, proximity, variety, walkability, idiosyncrasy, serendipity, and interactions with many other people.

If downtown Hamilton commits fully to being an urban as opposed to suburban place, then it will spring back to life (very quickly, I suspect, as latent demand rushes to breathe new life into the many dead and dormant spaces) and attract both people who want to live in an urban environment and who want to visit an urban environment.

Like in Toronto, they'll find ways to get into town, including transit and taxis. The additional demand for transit, of course, will allow the HSR to keep ratcheting up its level of service until the bus/BRT/LRT/Trolley is a much more convenient way of getting around than the car.

Trying to shoehorn suburban values - separation and mobility - into an urban area inevitably destroys that which makes the urban area worth attending. There's no way around this: cars consume too much space and displace too many real destinations to play a large role in downtown transportation.

Until we accept this, our downtown will continue to languish.

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By oldcoote (registered) | Posted February 08, 2007 at 14:59:14

The City won't give up the revenue. They generate huge dollars from parking tickets, on top of meters. I received more parking tickets in one year in Hamilton than I did in 10 years in Toronto. If you're 5 minutes past the hour...too late.

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